The 1980s are hot again. I guess nostalgia must have a 25-to-30-year sell-by date when it really kicks in. Fifteen years ago, the 1970s were the rage, and we may be on the cusp of the 90s making their grungy resurgence, but right now the 80s are where it’s at.
Perhaps it’s because, like that bygone day-glo era, we still live under a perpetual shroud of Armageddon, be it chemical or nuclear or viral. Perhaps it’s because we again exist in a politically divisive age where neither political party nor our president seem terribly interested in what any of us day-to-day schmucks think or feel. Perhaps it’s because our celebrities from then and today seem interchangeable, wearing outfits that look like they were designed by circus carnies.
Regardless, the 1980s are au courant, which is perfect timing for Two Muses Theatre’s Midwestern debut of the big-haired/shoulder-padded musical At the Bistro Garden. (In the spirit of open disclosure, I know personally many of the folks involved with this production and even helped with some of their marketing, including this interview with the show’s creative team.)
Nonetheless and perhaps in part because of this, I enjoyed the show a great deal. In similar fashion to two other beloved broadly comic artifacts from my youth – Designing Women and Steel Magnolias – the show recounts the trials and tribulations of three women caught between a rock and a hard place, proto-feminists whose formative years may have been haunted by Donna Reed and Gidget but whose present days are shaped by Gloria Steinem and Madonna.
The three ladies who lunch – Abigail, Cheyenne, and B.J. – have more money and time on their hands than they should and meet every Friday at Beverly Hills’ famed Bistro Garden restaurant to kvetch and kvell about family and friends. The plot wouldn’t have been out-of-place in a very special episode of the aforementioned Designing Women but offers enough meaningful complications to give this talented trio some great scenery to chew. As expected for a show set in this era, there’s much talk of divorce and alimony, illegitimate children … and shopping. An early number – the zippy “A Sale at Neiman’s” – celebrates the joys of retail excess, offering the bon mot “the right accessory can change your life.”
At times, the cartoonish whimsy of life in the 80s takes on an almost allegorical quality, highlighting the disconnect between narcissistic artifice and the very real pain (and reward) friendship and family can bring. The lilting tunes and snappy patter neatly propel the show and its themes.
The cast functions very well as an ensemble, each shining particularly in the more poignant moments. Sometimes the rat-a-tat dialogue gets a little lost in translation, where the wit should come from speed not emphasis, but when this cast clicks, they really click.
Carrie Jay Sayer as “Lady of the Canyon” Cheyenne and AlissaBeth Morton as her daughter Destiny (yeah, those names are a time warped hoot) steal every scene with a believable familial dynamic that engenders laughter and tears. They really do a solid job finding the humor in the pathos.
Amy Lauter as Abigail, a sweet-natured if misguided women-done-wrong, and Diane Hill as B.J., a not-as-sweet-natured but equally misguided woman-done-wrong, both have many touching moments as they explore the betrayal of a dream deferred. Both actresses excel in their plaintive solo numbers, plumbing new depths of heartache.
John DeMerell as master of ceremonies and the restaurant’s maître d’ sparkles – the catalyst that gives the production forward momentum and a refreshing lightness. He has a ball playing several additional bit parts throughout the show, aided and abetted by clever costuming and no end of silly accents. Miles Bond and Rusty Daugherty are fun as a sort of campy Greek chorus, offering arch commentary as waiters, moving men, clerks who float through the proceedings.
Indeed, the costuming by Barbie Amann Weisserman is perfection, loving and warmly funny but never satirical, which is a tricky balance to pull off. Lesser costumers end up making fun of a garish era such as this one, forgetting that people actually intend to look attractive (usually) and it’s only later in time when we realize how odd some of our fashion choices actually might have been. Everyone in the show does in fact look gorgeous, even if the styles and patterns and prints make us giggle with knowing recognition.
A narrative highlight – musically and acting-wise – is the number “Just Another Baby.” A scorched-earth, toxic meltdown that B.J. (Hill) delivers at a baby shower, ridiculing our nation’s unyielding mania for infants and our collective fixation on insipid names, miniaturized fashion, and corrosive parental competition. Hill nails it, and, as the show’s creative team (Deborah Pearl on book, David Kole on music/lyrics) continues to refine this work, they might consider sprinkling a bit of that second act’s number’s funny-as-h*ll venom throughout the softer/gentler first act.
(One minor quibble is the use of a pre-recorded accompaniment in this production. There is a live keyboard for some of the numbers, and those particular songs/performances had a warmer, more organic quality. No doubt this hybrid approach was driven by resource availability, but, at times it is a bit distracting.)
Jules Aaron’s direction is efficient and witty and makes effective use of the tight space with multi-functional set pieces and clever blocking. He has done a fabulous job forging a tight ensemble with rich stage life and believable connections, clearly key to making this show sing (pun intended).
As a new work, this show is worth catching to see how it continues to develop. The first act could use a trim here or there as it serves chiefly to set up the soap opera-esque fireworks of the second act (think Douglas Sirk meets The Carol Burnett Show – and that’s a good thing). After the intermission, the show speeds along as all of the puzzle pieces established in the first act come together. The show has one more weekend so be sure to stop by The Bistro Garden, to reminisce about a bygone era that is still surprisingly and perhaps sadly relevant today. Tickets can be purchased at www.twomusestheatre.org.
Two Muses Theatre performs in the Barnes & Noble Booksellers Theatre Space, 6800 Orchard Lake Rd, West Bloomfield, MI 48322, South of Maple (15 Mile). Enter the bookstore, and the theatre is on the left.
Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view.
In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.
My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.